For Pearl, on Her 35th Birthday

The last time I saw you was on September 4th, 2021. I was visiting my parents for the long weekend and came to your parents’ condo, just a few miles away; they were away at a church retreat, your husband was getting a haircut, and your friend Anna — possibly the best friend who’s ever lived — was taking care of you. I had picked up Taiwanese food from Oakland Tea House, because we had planned to have our next hang there. But then you had a brain bleed, likely a side effect of the experimental chemo you were on, so bringing Oakland Tea House to you as you recovered was the next best thing.

We had retired to the living room after eating. You were laying on the couch, in a fresh change of clothes after a drainage bag mishap, and I sat in a chair next to you. I asked you if you were still seeing clients.

“Yeah, I am,” you said.

My eyes grew wide. “Why?” I asked.

You looked over your shoulder at me. “It’s who I am, you know?”

That’s pretty much everything anyone needs to know about you.


There’s a thing that happens when you’re a therapist, especially a therapist who is female, Asian American, Christian: You get used to having mildly unsatisfying conversations in your everyday life. People not asking how you’re doing, or asking without giving you ample time or space to answer meaningfully; people not knowing what to do with your feelings when you share honestly; people not going beneath the surface to the level you want to reach. This isn’t anyone’s fault — it took me years of professional training to learn how to engage like this, to be able to empathize and attune, to be comfortable sitting with things that are unpleasant or unresolved. I don’t blame anyone for not connecting at the level I would often like to, but it makes me all the more appreciative of the few who do.

You were one of those rare people. No surprise, perhaps, given that you were also an Asian American Christian female therapist. But when I moved back to Michigan in 2018, even after not seeing you for years, we were able to get to that level almost immediately. You made plans to see me at my parents’ house; since being an Asian American Christian female therapist often means carrying a disproportionate amount of the load in my friendships, your effort alone was a gift, especially given how young my kids were. You asked me how I was doing and made time and space for my many feelings, your attention breaking only when my children demanded it. And you reciprocated — you told me very honestly about everything that had gone down since we last saw each other over a decade before, about the cancer and being in and out of chemo, about how foggy you still felt, about John, about your families, about caring for a full load of clients even as you had so many needs of your own. You showed up, literally and figuratively, and after months of pure chaos — having my second child five weeks early, moving across the country with a six-month-old and a three-year-old and no permanent home to speak of — your presence with me was a balm. You received me into a new chapter of my life with such care, and in this moment of massive upheaval, it was everything.

You showed up like this for everyone in your life, personally and professionally. I still don’t understand how you did it. When I was a therapist, my social circle shrank as my caseload increased; after being so present with clients all day, I had little bandwidth to engage with anyone else. But you didn’t seem to have the same limitations. In all your years as a therapist, you somehow managed to care for all your clients while investing time and energy into your friendships from every chapter of your life. And you did this even as the cancer kept returning, even when it spread, even when chemo failed and failed again. I would have stopped caring for anyone but myself, and no one would have faulted me. But that’s not who you were.


After I left you and got in my car, I made a commitment to visit you every time I was in town to see my parents. The next time would be October 9th. I would bring cider and donuts from the Franklin Cider Mill, which had just opened for the season. I would get to meet John, like you said I would. Your birthday was a few months away and I would write you a card telling you how much you meant to me, because birthdays are a socially appropriate time to do that, and I thought we still had time.

We did not. On October 2nd, I got a text from Liz Lai: “Pearl died at 9:50.”

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

I thought we had more time.

I drove to my parents’ house on October 9th as planned. Only instead of having cider and donuts with you and John, I went to your funeral.

The church was packed; it was one of the most diverse crowds I’ve ever been in, since you were the only person I’ve ever met who had equal numbers of Asian, Black, and white friends. A parade of people came to the podium and talked about how you had impacted their lives and I feel like four of them said you were their best friend, because if anyone could handle having four best friends and also take care of people for a living, it was you. Your boss said that even as you got sicker and could only see clients over the phone, for shorter sessions, not a single one of them wanted a new therapist because your love and care for them was so palpable. It was a beautiful service. Yet all I wanted to do was jump out of my own skin, so much did I hate the fact that you now existed only in two dimensions, in the photo on the front of the ceremony program, in the slideshow that soundlessly looped in the background.

In the days and weeks that followed, I found myself drifting into an alternate reality where you were alive, where you had been able to get married when you wanted to, where you had the kids you wanted so deeply. This was the life you should have had, had cancer and chemo not taken so much of your twenties and thirties, and it was so much easier to imagine than what had actually happened. My mind kept shifting to the reality that made sense instead of the one that did not.


It’s been over a year. I no longer imagine that you’re still alive, but I still think about you all the time: Every time I try a new Asian place near my parents’ house, because you would have tried it already and given me an accurate read. Every time Robert and I go to a restaurant in Detroit, because we had talked about eating our way through the city with our spouses. Every time I hear Ace of Base, because the last thing you ever told me was that “All That She Wants” was your favorite song from the ‘90s. Every time I eat PopCorners, because you recommended them to me when I needed pandemic snacks, telling me your dad keeps four big bags in his bedroom “just in case.” In my mind, you are as present as you ever were.

I do not know where you are otherwise, if there is any kind of life after this one. I do not know why the best people are so often the first to go. But I do know how profoundly lucky I was to know you, to be loved by you, to be the beneficiary of your friendship and care. I love you forever.

Loss Upon Loss

I’d been anticipating the first anniversary of the death of my childhood friend Jason Polan — for me, the first devastation of 2020 — when I received word from Jason’s mom that his father died.

While I have clear memories of Jane from childhood, I did not meet Jesse until Jason’s funeral. Even in grief, he was full of life — warm and gregarious, wearing the hamburger t-shirt that Jason designed for Uniqlo beneath his suit jacket. He opened his eulogy with this: “It is not right that I am here talking about Jason. I feel very strongly that it should be the other way around.” It is wrong for parents to bury their children: the simplest, clearest distillation of why we were all so gutted, and in this case, a gross understatement. Jane and Jesse weren’t just parents — they were exemplary parents who had enviably close relationships with their kind, altruistic children, and in the countless hours they spent volunteering at their kids’ schools and baseball leagues, they cared for everyone else’s children too. And they did not bury only one child; Jason’s older sister Jennifer died 20 years earlier, when she was 23. It is wrong for any parent to bury a child, but it was extremely wrong for these parents to bury a child more than once.

In the wake of Jesse’s passing, I am overwhelmed by the same feeling of wrongness that he spoke about a year ago. It is wrong that Jesse, this convivial man who loved the community so deeply, spent his final year immersed first in grief and then in isolation. It is wrong that the countless people he impacted through his lifetime of service cannot gather to properly commemorate his passing. It is wrong that Jane, so endlessly generous with her time and labor, has endured the deaths of two children and now her spouse. It is wrong that for her, this year — this historically, universally terrible year — has been bookended by two unspeakable losses. It is wrong. It is all so fucking wrong.

I do not understand why bad things happen to good people, nor why the worst things have befallen the very best people. All I know is this: Jason and Jesse’s lives were a gift. Nothing is promised to us except this moment. And the world is profoundly unfair.

Photo via Uniqlo

Remembering Jason Polan

Today was the funeral for Jason Polan, my classmate from second grade through college. Two things were evident from childhood: he was talented and he was kind. (He was also the cutest eight-year-old, and thus the first object of my affection.) His elementary school doodles became murals in high school and a thrice-weekly comic strip in our college paper. Then he went to New York and quietly made a name for himself, drawing prolifically, showing and publishing his work, collaborating with everyone from the New York Times to Nike, Marvel to Warby Parker, Tartine to Momofuku. Every new accomplishment would make me so excited, not just because I knew him but because he was such a good person — and what’s more gratifying than seeing a genuinely good person succeed?

Jason’s kindness was palpable even in the pictures and observations he posted on Instagram. Also apparent there is his delight in the details of everyday life, in silly coincidences, in the people and things that most would consider background noise. Everything fascinated him, and he made you see how fascinating everything is.


Many of these qualities can be traced to his incredible family — especially his mother, whom everyone knew because she ran the PTA and pretty much everything else in our community — and I am devastated for them. Jason’s sister Jennifer died of a brain hemorrhage at 23, two days before he and I graduated from high school. His parents have already had to bury two of their three children.

That is just not right.


Last year, the Atlantic published a profile of Ocean Vuong that was written by Kat Chow, who had gone to the same high school. While they hadn’t overlapped there, that shared experience grounded their conversation beautifully. After reading that piece, I wondered if I could do a similar interview with Jason when I was further along in my career. I wanted to know what his experience of high school was like, how his sister’s death changed his work and his relationship with his family, what it was like for him to live in New York when his disposition was so thoroughly Midwestern and he was so close with his family. After he died on Monday, I found myself adding to the list of questions I will never get to ask: When you are so good at seeing and celebrating the minutiae of life, when you delight in small, lovely moments of human connection and compassion, when you are so finely tuned to the tiny details of being alive that most of us never see because we’re too damn busy running from place to place — what is it like to realize that all of that is coming to an end?


I am mourning the loss of a childhood friend and an immensely gifted artist, but more than anything, I’m mourning the loss of a really good person. I thought that about you often, Jason. In a world full of assholes, you were quietly kind to everyone, strangers and friends alike — never drawing attention to it, just being who you are, no matter where you were. The world is darker and less delightful without you in it.


Obituaries and articles:

A few of the many tributes on the internet:

Introducing the Top Five Podcast

My friend Chris and I love podcasts and we couldn’t find one where two Asian Americans talk about pop culture of all kinds, so we decided to make the podcast we wished to see in the world. Our first four episodes are now up on iTunes/Google Play/Spotify/everything! A few of the things we’ve talked about so far: Always Be My Maybe. Our top five problematic faves. The most adult things we’ve done in the last year. Our top five power couples. The Farewell. Our top five albums of the ’90s. It’s been really fun and we’re so excited to share this and to keep making it. If you’d like, you can follow along on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and stream us here.

Finding a Therapist

Starting therapy isn’t easy; once you’ve made the decision to go, you then have to find a therapist, which is no small task.  As I’ve written previously, finding a therapist isn’t like finding a dentist or a mechanic; how you feel about your therapist has everything to do with how well your therapy will go, which isn’t the case for most people who provide you services.

So if you’re in the market for a therapist, here’s what I recommend:

1.  Ask around.  If you know someone who’s been in therapy and you feel comfortable doing this, ask who they see and if they like working with them.

Since you may not know anyone who’s seeing a therapist — or at least is public about it — this may not be a viable option.  But if you do, having someone you know and trust vouch for a therapist is a huge deal.

2.  Psychology Today has a Find a Therapist directory; you can enter your zip code and find a list of therapists in your area.  Each therapist’s profile usually includes a blurb about how they work, areas of specialty, fees, and the like.  Do a search, find a few who fit your needs and whose profiles resonate with you, and give them a call.  Almost every therapist I know in private practice has a profile there.

3.  Below is a list of therapists I would recommend.  Since I went to school in LA, my list is disproportionately skewed toward Southern California and where my classmates have dispersed around the country, so I apologize if your city/state/entire geographical region is neglected.  But for those who do live in these areas, every person on this list is someone I would be willing to see myself.

A few things to keep in mind in the process:

– Just as medical doctors have different specialties and techniques, so too do therapists.  It may be helpful, as you look for one, to inquire how they work and if they have experience working with the kind of issue you’re dealing with.

– Since finding a therapist who’s a good fit is so important, you might need to try a few before you find one you like.  It can take some time, but many therapists offer free consultations, either in person or by phone, which is helpful.  The extra time and effort is worth it.

I wish you the best on your search, and if there’s anything I can do to help, feel free to shoot me an email.


Los Angeles County

Mackenzie Abraham (Hermosa Beach)

Lauren Ahlquist (Santa Monica)

David Choi (Santa Monica)

Whitney Dicterow (Los Angeles)

Tara Fairbanks (Santa Monica)

Katie Flores (Pasadena)

Michelle Harwell (Eagle Rock)

Gary Hayashi (South Pasadena)

Martin Hsia (Glendale)

Peter Huang (Pasadena)

Jennifer Kung (Los Angeles)

Broderick Leaks (Glendale)

Eunice Lee (Alhambra)

Hanna Lee (Cal Poly Pomona Student Health and Counseling Services*)

Angela Liu (Pasadena)

Jennifer Shim Lovers (Pasadena)

Jeremy Mast (Ventura)

Shauna McManus (Pasadena)

Nikki Rubin (West LA)

Ani Vartazarian (Los Angeles)

Tim Wong (Santa Monica)

Linda Yoon (Los Angeles)

Orange County

Jessica Eldridge (UC Irvine Counseling Center*)

Lindsay Golden (Newport Beach)

Negar Shekarabi (Lake Forest)

David Wang (Fullerton)

Riverside County

Hana Carmona (UC Riverside Counseling Center*)

Jennifer Hung (UC Riverside Counseling Center*)

Loretta Mead (UC Riverside Counseling Center*)

Santa Barbara

Steve Rogers


Ya-Shu Liang (Fresno State Student Health Center*)

Bay Area

Katie Byron (Redwood City)

Jennifer Chen (Oakland)

Sharon Coles (Oakland)

Sarah Kasuga-Jenks (Berkeley)

Stephanie Lai (San Francisco)

Danielle Vanaman (Castro Valley)


Sarah Moon

Chris Waters (The Dalles)


Judith Hong Cho


Lindsay Sturgeon


Sarah Moon

New York

Hana Shin


Stephan Gombis

Crystal Kannankeril

Eunia Lee (Chicago and Lisle)

Tracy Leman (Hinsdale)


Tim Hogan (Plymouth)

Jennifer Tang (Ann Arbor)

Grace Wong (Southfield)

Dan Zomerlei (Grandville)


Lauren King

Brittany Rader


Kelley Bolton


David Kim


Sam Lee (Austin)

Ryan Spencer (Austin)

Jenny Wang (Houston)

* Therapists working at university counseling centers can be seen only by students enrolled in that university.

updated 04.27.22

Seven Things You Should Know About Therapy Before You Start

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.

For a therapist, the first session with a client is everything.  Not only is it where you start to build a relationship, but it’s also where you gather all of their background information, the puzzle pieces you use to construct a picture of who they are — the most important of which is why they’ve come to see you in the first place.  When I was a therapist, that was the first thing I would ask.

I once had a client who responded, “I was watching House last night, and one of the characters on the show saw a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist pointed out all of these things they didn’t even realize about themselves, and they had this amazing, mind-blowing experience.  I want to experience something like that.”

I paused.  “Okay,” I said slowly.  “Is there anything in particular that’s bothering you, or anything specific that you want to address?”

The client stared blankly back at me.

This was not going to go well.


After my last post about being in therapy, I got a number of questions about how the process works.  This is completely understandable, as when it comes to therapy, most people know only the random tidbits they’ve gleaned from distant relatives and The Sopranos.  As a result, many are thrown for a loop when they start the process and find that it’s not exactly what they expected.  This can frustrate client and therapist alike, so in the interest of all parties, here are a few things you should know before you begin.

You should have a goal in mind.  The client I described earlier had an unrealistic expectation for therapy:  She wanted me to blow her mind.  Somehow.  But that’s not how it works.  Simply walking into the office and expecting the therapist to pull something helpful out of thin air isn’t reasonable; you need to have a sense of what you want to work toward.  Wanting to learn how to manage your stress, to understand why you interact in a certain way with others, to feel less sad, to stop obsessing about food, to figure out your sexuality, to understand why your kid throws tantrums, to communicate better with your partner — these are all reasonable goals.  Wanting your therapist to amaze you is not.  (That may happen, but it shouldn’t be your main objective, because you’ll probably be disappointed.)

This leads to my next point:

Therapy takes work.  I’ve had any number of clients who seemed to think that simply coming to therapy was the big accomplishment, and now that they had made it into my office, I would reward them by producing a prescription for happiness or doing some kind of alchemy that would magically make them feel better.

Don’t get me wrong:  Making it into a therapist’s office is a big deal.  But that is not the ultimate goal.  And if your therapist had a prescription for happiness, they would probably not be your therapist; they would be reclining on their private island in the Caribbean, because they would be a bajillionaire and never have to work again.  And no one would ever need therapy.

Therapy requires you, the client, to do a lot of work.  You have to be open and honest about your experiences, past and present, and your fears and concerns about the future, however embarrassing or unrealistic they might be.  You have to reflect on your feelings, thoughts, and actions; you may have to revisit painful experiences; you may have to sit in uncomfortable feelings; you may have to put some things into practice outside of your sessions and come back and report how they went.  Yes, your therapist will be working too; it takes a lot of effort and skill to see how all of the pieces come together, how your past experiences shape your current ones, how your behavior is reinforced by your environment, why you feel and think and act the way you do — all while keeping tabs on your behavior in the session and their own feelings and using all these factors to determine where to go next.  Your therapist is tracking things on multiple levels, and that kind of work is no joke.  So therapy is a lot of work for the therapist — but it’s also a lot of work for the client, and you should know that going in.

The best time to go to therapy is when you are *not* in crisis.  When it comes to your physical health, you wouldn’t want your first encounter with a doctor to be in the ER when you’re having a heart attack.  At that point, their main goal will be simply to keep you alive.  Ideally, you’d first see a doctor when you’re feeling well to make sure that everything looks okay, to establish a game plan to manage anything out of the ordinary, and to avert a heart attack in the first place.  The same is true for your mental health.  If you go to therapy only when you’re in crisis, the main goal for you and your therapist will be to get you back to a place where you can function.  You won’t have a lot of margin to think about much more than that.  The best time to see a therapist is long before the crisis happens so you can develop healthy patterns and prevent the crisis altogether.

You should like your therapist.  When you think about it, it doesn’t really matter if you like your dentist or your mechanic; it helps, certainly, but at the end of the day, how you feel about them personally has little bearing on how well they fill your cavities or check your brakes.  In contrast, you share with your therapist your deepest vulnerabilities, wounds, and pain.  Not liking them will significantly impact your ability to do that — and to be open to their feedback.  So find a therapist you like.  You may have to visit a few before you find one, but many will do a first session or a phone consult for free.  If they seem like a weirdo or you don’t click, find someone else.  (Unless you see a bunch of people and you don’t like any of them, in which case… you, or your attitude about therapy, might be the problem.)

… but therapy is not the same as talking with a friend.  If it were, you could simply talk with a friend and save yourself the money.  Your therapist may do things that a friend might not, like make observations about your body language and how they’re experiencing you in the moment.  On the flip side, they might not do things that a friend probably would, like tell you about themselves or give you advice about what they think you should do.  Some things that aren’t normal in the real world are par for the course in therapy.  The point is to get you as aware as possible about yourself — your thoughts, your feelings, the messages you send and receive from the people around you.

Therapy is not cheap.  Many people assume that therapy won’t cost much, perhaps because it requires no fancy equipment.  They are wrong.  Depending on where you live, therapy can run anywhere from 80 to 200 dollars an hour.  This, to some, seems unreasonable.  But 1. your therapist is working hard, as I described earlier; 2. their education and experience weren’t free; and 3. your payment for therapy signifies your investment in it.  Even agencies that serve the lowest-income clients almost never provide free services, because when people regularly get something for free, they tend not to take it seriously.  We pay for what we value.

That being said, many clients do not pay full price for therapy.  Many therapists have sliding-scale fees, so if you legitimately cannot afford their services because of your income, they can offer a reduced rate.  Also, many insurance plans cover mental health services; some cover a certain number of sessions a year and some even cover unlimited sessions, usually with a small co-pay.  The downside of using insurance is that you have less choice in who you can see (and, with certain providers, you may not get to see your therapist more than once a month).  In addition, therapists who are still in training usually have lower rates than licensed ones; the drawback there is that they have less experience.  (I wouldn’t rule out this option, though — I had classmates who were so naturally gifted that they were better therapists in their first year of school than some of the licensed clinicians I’ve met.)

If you’re a college or graduate student, your school almost certainly has a counseling center on campus, where you get a certain number of sessions a year simply for paying your (required) student fees.  Not nearly enough students know about these services — or take advantage of them.  Given how expensive therapy can be in the real world, this is a pretty sweet deal.  In addition to therapy, your school’s counseling center may offer resources like workshops and group therapy.  The downside:  Like seeing a therapist through your insurance, you have less choice in who you see, and you may have to wait a while to see someone, as many counseling centers have waiting lists.  But many of the best therapists I know work at universities.


Things might get worse before they get better.  People vary in their responses to the first few sessions of therapy.  Some feel so much relief from talking about their issues that they feel better immediately.  Others, however, find that facing their problem head-on is painful, or that the problem is deeper and more complicated than they realized.  They may realize that their depression is related to a loss in childhood that they never fully processed, for example, or that their issue will take more than a few sessions to fix.  And instead of feeling better right away, sometimes they feel worse than they did when they first went in.  It’s very common for people to drop out of therapy at this point.

But the thing is:  Sometimes, things get worse before they get better.  This is completely normal. You have to acknowledge the problem in its entirety in order to address it.  You need to face the pain in order to heal from it.  So uncomfortable as it might be, if it gets worse before it gets better, I urge you to stick with it.  If you keep working at it, it will get better.  And you’ll be better off for it in the end.


So that is my advice to you, should you be considering therapy — which I think everyone should.  If you need more information about how to find a therapist, you can find steps and referrals here.  And whoever you are and whatever you’re going through, I wish you the best on your journey to healing and wholeness.